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Taliban 'very aggressive,' top U.S. general says

Taliban militants are moving beyond their traditional strongholds, forcing a shift in U.S. troop deployments, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan said in an interview published Monday.
Image: A boy walks away from the site where Taliban are holding a building
A U.S. helicopter fires protective flares over a building taken by Taliban militants in Pul-i-Alam, Afghanistan, on Monday. Three attackers and two police reportedly died in the battle.Ahmad Masood / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Taliban militants are moving beyond their traditional strongholds, forcing a shift in U.S. troop deployments, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan said in an interview published Monday in The Wall Street Journal.

"We've got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative," Gen. Stanley McChrystal, speaking from his office in Kabul, told the Journal.

The Taliban is "a very aggressive enemy right now," he said.

McChrystal is preparing an interim assessment that is expected to be a sober accounting of the difficulties of fighting an entrenched and technically capable insurgency eight years into the war.

The White House is redefining how it will measure progress, with new benchmarks expected next month. The outline will be presented to Congress with an eye to creeping skepticism among many Democrats about the war's prognosis and costs.

The Taliban have advanced out of their traditional bases in the south and east and into the relatively more peaceful north and west, McChrystal told the Journal.

He said he will redeploy some troops now in sparsely populated locations to areas with more Afghan civilians, while some of the 4,000 U.S. troops still to arrive will be deployed to Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

According to the Journal, McChrystal said that means U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, already at record levels, will remain high for months to come.

McChrystal also said he hadn't decided whether to request additional U.S. forces. "We're still working it," he told the Journal.

The Journal said several officials who have taken part in McChrystal's 60-day review of the war effort expected him to eventually request up to 10,000 more troops. So far, he has focused on protecting civilians rather than hunting down militants, especially ahead of national elections on Aug. 20.

No crisis, Obama adviser says
James Jones, President Barack Obama's national security adviser and a retired Marine general with experience in Afghanistan, said the United States will know by the end of next year whether the strategy Obama announced in March is working.

The Obama plan is supposed to combine a more vigorous military campaign against the Taliban with a commitment to protect Afghan civilians and starve the insurgents of sanctuary and popular support.

Jones, making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, said the war is not now in crisis but did little to dispel the growing expectation that Obama would soon be asked to supplement the 21,000 additional forces he already approved for Afghanistan this year.

"We won't rule anything out," but the new strategy is too fresh for a full evaluation, Jones said.

"If things come up where we need to adjust one way or the other, and it involves troops or it involves more incentives ... for economic development or better assistance to help the Afghan government function, we'll do that," he added.

'Narco industry' targeted
In a major policy shift, an American military official in Kabul said Monday that drug traffickers who help fund the Afghan insurgency are on a list of militant leaders targeted by the U.S. military.

U.S. soldiers from the 5th. Striker Brigades walk next to armored vehicles as they arrive at their base on the outskirts of Spin Boldak, about 100 kilometers (63 miles) southeast of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009. Thousands of U.S. troops are deploying in southern Afghanistan as part of an effort to prevent the Taliban from disrupting the country's Aug. 20 presidential ballot. Emilio Morenatti / AP

"The list of targets are those that are contributing to the insurgency, so the key leadership, and part of that obviously is the link between the narco industry and the militants," said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan.

Smith declined to say how many drug traffickers or militants are on the list. The New York Times reported in its Monday edition that the military has a list of 367 "kill or capture" targets in Afghanistan, including 50 targets who straddle the drug trade and insurgency. The Times cited a report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the newspaper said would be released this week.

More troops?
The United States has spent more than $220 billion since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, plus billions more toward aid and development projects. By the United States' own admission, much of the aid money was wasted.

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Sunday he does not know how Congress would react to a new request for additional troops.

"It depends on what the facts and the arguments are," said Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. "It depends what our commanders in the field say. It depends also I think in part what our NATO allies are willing to do."

Appearing with him, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, warned against repeating what he called the mistake of committing too few troops to Iraq at the start of that war.

"My message to my Democratic colleagues is that we made mistakes in Iraq. Let's not 'Rumsfeld' Afghanistan," Graham said, referring to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld resisted sending a very large U.S. force at the outset of the Iraq war in 2003.

Surge in roadside bombs
Violence has spiked this year, with roadside bombs the militants' weapon of choice.

There are relatively few direct firefights, but one on Monday saw six Taliban fighters infiltrate a provincial capital just south of the Afghan capital, firing rocket-propelled grenades at government buildings. Two police and three attackers reportedly died in the violence.

The militants fired four RPGs at the governor's compound and two at the police chief's office in the city of Pul-i-Alam, the capital of Logar province, about 40 miles south of Kabul, said Din Mohammad Darwesh, the governor's spokesman.

U.S. helicopters patrolled the skies, and one fired a rocket at an attacker, killing him, said Mustafa Musseini, the provincial police chief. Another attacker blew up a suicide vest and killed himself, and a third attacker died in battle, Musseini said.

Deaths among U.S. and other NATO troops have soared. With 74 foreign troops killed — including 43 Americans — July was the deadliest month for international forces since the start of the war in 2001.

There are currently 62,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 allied forced in Afghanistan, on top of about 175,000 Afghan soldiers and police. Some NATO countries plan to withdraw their troops in the next couple of years, even as the U.S. expands its presence.

Jones appeared on "Fox News Sunday," NBC's "Meet the Press" and CBS' "Face the Nation." Levin and Graham were on CBS.

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